TALLINN, (Reuters) – NATO ministers on Friday agreed conditions to start handing over security responsibility in Afghanistan to Afghan forces this year, but the alliance said this would not mean a rush to leave the country.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said transition would be a gradual process based on conditions, not a timetable, and stressed the need for allies to provide more personnel to train Afghan forces.
“It will not be a pullout. It will not be a run for the exit,” Rasmussen told a news conference after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in the Estonian capital Tallinn.
The Afghan government’s past failure to deliver services and security in areas from which the Taliban have been pushed out is seen as a major threat to NATO strategy and the aim of cutting a foreign troop commitment that now exceeds 120,000. “What will happen is that we hand over lead responsibility to the Afghans and our soldiers will then move into a more supportive role, but I foresee that the Afghan security forces will need our supportive assistance for quite some time,” Rasmussen said. “So it will be a gradual process.”
NATO’s 28 members backed a plan by U.S. President Barack Obama last year for a substantial boost in international troop numbers to allow time to train up Afghan forces.
Obama’s aim was to allow Washington to begin pulling some U.S. troops out of the country by July of 2011, a goal that has always appeared ambitious given a widening Taliban insurgency.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States has been pleased by the response of its allies in promising additional troops, trainers and other experts. “For me, the glass is way more than half full in terms of what we asked for, what we need and what we have received,” Clinton told a news conference in Tallinn.
Rasmussen went into the NATO meeting saying the alliance was still short of 450 personnel to train Afghan security forces.
NATO officials have said that if Afghan security forces are to reach a target of 300,000 personnel in 2011, at least 1,000 more trainers will be needed on top of Rasmussen’s figures.
Rasmussen said ministers had agreed on conditions that have to be met to allow a “sustainable but irreversible” transition that NATO aims to start in more secure districts this year. “We will hand over responsibility when the Afghans are actually capable to take responsibility,” he said. “This is the reason I attach such strong importance to our training mission, because we need to train and educate Afghan soldiers and police so that they can take over responsibility and today I have once again urged allies and partners to contribute to our training mission.” “We will stay in Afghanistan as long as it takes to finish our job, but of course, it’s not forever.”
At a conference this week, U.S. and Afghan officials listed dozens of obstacles to boosting Afghan capabilities and the credibility of a government seen as inefficient and corrupt. They highlighted particular problems with the performance of the police, only about 30 percent of whom have any training.
NATO has also struggled to persuade countries to provide funds to run the Afghan army. As of mid-April, only 274 million euros ($368 million) had been pledged or contributed to a trust fund for this purpose, against an annual requirement estimated at $1.8 billion (1.3 billion euros).